Cronulla Sharks v Newcastle Knights
Southern Cross Group Stadium – Sunday, 2.00pm
Scoring two late tries to see off a spirited Cowboys fight back last Saturday, the Cronulla Sharks will be looking to edge closer to a top four finish with another big win over the Knights.
Having dominated their opponents with seven consecutive wins following Shane Flanagan’s reappointment as coach in the wake of the ASADA scandal, the Sharks have frequently flexed their attacking muscles against the Knights, including the 48-10 demolition in Newcastle earlier this season – the highest tally recorded since their 62-0 demolition in the Hunter during the 2016 premiership winning campaign.
Currently locked in a four-way tussle for fourth position, but relegated to sixth due to for-and-against, the potential to post a large score against an out-of-contention side should see the Sharks play with plenty of flair, but as the Panthers can attest to the Knights are no longer the easy-beats of years gone by.
Serving as their final appearance at home this season, the Sharks will be eager to see off a number of loyal servants with a win, headlined by retiring triple centurion Luke Lewis, along with Ricky Leutele (Toronto Wolfpack), Jesse Ramien (Newcastle Knights), Edrick Lee (Newcastle Knights) and Joseph Paulo (St. Helens).
Forced into changes from the team that triumphed 28-16 against North Queensland, Jesse Ramien and Ricky Leutele have been ruled out with Kurt Capewell and Edrick Lee coming into the backline, while in a boost to their cause co-captain Wade Graham will return in the second row.
Three years ago the Newcastle Knights lost a final round showdown with Penrith, infamously dubbed ‘the spoon bowl’ in which the loser finished 2015 with the NRL’s dreaded kitchen utensil.
Experiencing identical finishes in the following two seasons, the Knights achieved a major milestone last Saturday by moving completely out of wooden spoon territory following a shock victory over the Panthers at the foot of the mountains.
Avoiding the potential of equalling University’s run of four consecutive wooden spoons between 1934-37, while appearing reasonable in comparison to Parramatta’s six last-placed finishes between 1956-61, the Knights will be out to build confidence towards 2019 after maintaining 11th position following last week’s win.
Hitting the road for the final time this season, the Knights will be eager to make amends for a disastrous showing against the Sharks during Beanie for Brain Cancer round back in May, while putting a major dent in their opponents top four chances.
Retaining Kalyn Ponga in the halves following a solid showing last Saturday, Connor Watson shapes as a late inclusion after being named on the extended bench, while former Cronulla premiership winner Chris Heighington will return to his former home ground as the curtain begins to draw to a close on his time in the NRL.
- Cronulla have won the past seven meetings against Newcastle by a combined score of 243 – 84.
- The last time the Knights won in Cronulla, Valentine Holmes had yet to debut in first grade. In the seven meetings since then, Holmes has never lost to Newcastle and scored 12 tries – his best tally against any team.
- Set to play their final home match of the season, the Sharks will be out to reverse a disappointing record having managed just three wins in the fixture over the past decade.
Players with a Point – Luke Lewis v Chris Heighington
As former teammates set to hang up the boots at season’s end, the careers enjoyed by Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington rank among the most storied in the game’s history. Dual premiership winners, among the exclusive group to play over 300 NRL games and representing their respective countries to boot, the ageing warriors will be eager to claim bragging rights in their final first grade meeting.
Starting out with Penrith just days after turning 18 back in 2001, Lewis’ versatility has seen him cover nearly every position on the field over the course of his career. Becoming a fixture of the Sharks’ right side attack during a six-year stint, the 35-year-old holds a distinct place in the club’s history as the first Clive Churchill Medallist for his efforts in the premiership win two years ago. Capable of finishing his time in first grade with a third grand final lap of honour, the former skinny winger will be approaching each match as his last in the knowledge that unlike the common adage, the end of his time in the NRL could realistically be 80 minutes away.
Debuting in first grade as a 21-year-old back in 2003, Heighington’s durability has been his greatest strength over the course of 16 seasons in the NRL. Colloquially known for his uninhibited remarks during the Tigers’ grand final lap of honour in 2005, the English international has proven to be more than a light-hearted internet meme with his on-field efforts earning the admiration of teammates and peers alike. Returning to his former home ground as a visitor before one final appearance in first grade the following week, the finality of his time as a professional footballer is sure to see the 36-year-old savour every run and tackle before hanging up the boots for good.
With the likes of Thaiday, Hoffman, Slater and Thurston among the retiring class of 2018, the departures of Lewis and Heighington are sure to be felt for their respective clubs and the game as a whole, while serving as an opportunity for the next generation to reach similar heights.
Having accounted for two quality teams over the past fortnight, the Sharks should prove too strong for the Knights, however after impressing against Penrith last week the prospect of an upset could be on the cards for the visitors.